Friday 24 May 2013

Getting to know myself...

... or am I a figment of my own imagination?
A while ago I was pointed in the direction of the Coursera website, it offers university level courses, for free, to students all over the world, mostly pitched at people without prior knowledge and who are armed merely with a curious mind. So since March I have being studying a course entitled Know Thyself that has encompassed a variety of disciplines, but tutored by a philosopher, Mitch Green.

The first thing that the course has given me is a profound awe for the human mind. It is oh so much more sophisticated than most people appreciate. Secondly I feel cleverer just studying philosophy, and I discover this is because the concept of 'philosophy' is positively somatically marked, the word is linked in your mind with all sorts of associations that imply intelligence. We started the course with the work of Socrates and the notion that 'the unexamined life is not worth living', or as an alternative translation suggests, is 'not to be lived', taking pains to point out that Socrates probably was not advocating a cull of thoughtless people, just that their lives lacked some quality if they went about never considering the what or why of their thoughts, beliefs or actions. As a philosopher I am not sure he is such a great example, he tends to live up to the stereotype of the aloof, 'disconnected from the real world' kind of philosopher, that had given philosophy an undeserved bad name, but he was prepared to die for the idea that he should be allowed to question everything, so all credit to him in my book. Descartes on the other hand was a bit of a chicken and having made a very convincing case for the existence of a human consciousness as the basis for all knowledge (I think therefore I am) he then goes and spoils it by arguing that god exists, mostly because saying that he didn't was not socially acceptable at the time. I found myself at odds with the dualist notion of the separation of the mind and the body, influenced partly by the religious overtones but also by my reading of 'Still Alice' at the time; where Descartes says the mind can exist beyond the death of the body, but not vice versa, what I learned about Alzheimer's Disease seems to imply that the body is perfectly able to live even when everything that makes up the human mind, the thoughts, memories, instincts, wishes, all cognitive functions, have ceased to operate.

Lots of different theorists have different views on what constitutes the human mind; for Descartes our mind is our ability to reason, for Gilbert Ryle we are made up of a collection of 'dispositions' to behaviour, then for Freud our minds are made up of the Ego, the Id and the Superego. The study of the brain has often focussed on learning about it's function by seeing what happens to it when things go wrong, either with physical brain damage or mental illness. But many of them came back to the idea of introspection, Socrates' notion of an examined life, that to understand your own behaviour and actions you must examine your thoughts and attitudes. Although much of Freud's theories about human nature have been discredited psychotherapy remains an important mechanism to understanding the human mind. Different theories emerged about the unconscious and our ability to understand what goes on in the part of the mind that we are often unaware of. What emerged also was the notion of the interdependence between mind and body, between thoughts and actions, each impacting upon the other and also between our supposed rationality and our emotions. It has only been much more recently that  neuroscience has progressed and we have more and more knowledge about the inner workings of the brain on a cellular level.  I am still reading Antonio Damasio's book 'Descartes Error' which turns on it's head the idea that human beings should or do make decisions based on rationally choosing the best outcome and that allowing emotions to intervene is necessarily a bad thing, but this book makes use of  knowledge about the functioning of regions of the brain for different purposes (review coming of this book at some point, hopefully soon).

Having morphed from a philosophy into more of a psychology course and drifted briefly into neuroscience, we went back to examining the idea of deception and self-deception, not just in terms of lying but more subtly in terms of your internal spin-doctor who helps you make the best of life when it's really not that great. And finally to Buddhism and Zen and how it is more in rejecting the notion of 'self' that we can come to any sense of meaning.

I have been trying to write something of an overview of what I learned but find that although I enjoyed it the ideas were all very discrete, different views at how we humans have considered our own minds. There is a 'Cartesian View' or a 'Freudian View' or a 'Buddhist View' of the human mind, they are separate paradigms and do not lead one to another, nor did each necessarily help in understanding the next. I found that the most helpful thing were the questions that Mitch posed at the beginning and end of the course, that he told his students to always ask about any idea: What do you mean? and How do you know? You should be able to challenge yourself to question the theories and ideas that you hold and reason with yourself about them. I especially like the concept of 'Occam's razor' which states that 'among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.' The human mind is an amalgam of all the assumption it has acquired through experiences, many of them very flawed, and trying to figure out which is most of the battle. I am left with the feeling that to know your own mind certainly could be the work of a lifetime, and if you focus inwards too much you might be both tying yourself up in knots and missing something much more important outside.  What I liked most was that it felt like real studying; video lectures prepared specifically for the course, suggested reading, online discussions and feedback. It had to be done within the course schedule and there were weekly tests to see if you had paid attention and understood the concepts in the lectures so you had to treat it seriously if you wanted to 'pass'. Of the 70,000 odd who signed up apparently less than 10,000 were still actively participating at the end. Creature and I have since begun an Introduction to Psychology course together and will be starting 'Introduction to Art' next week too. I have several more in the pipeline that start later in the year. I would highly recommend it to anyone either just wanting to try something new or interested in getting back into formal education.


  1. I'm doing the Intro to Art course starting next week too - see you there! Then maybe the Fantasy & Science Fiction one the week after that (or I might do a Camp NaNoWriMo instead - decisions, decisions!) and social psychology in July. Coursera is the best! :)

  2. wow thanks for introducing me to this Martine and for your summing up in a nutshell ...... it sounds really interesting, well done for working so hard!!!


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